Biden faces down Putin

Russian President Vladimir PutinVladimir Vladimirovich PutinThe hidden blessing of China's and Russia's hostility Former president returns to Ukraine ahead of court hearing McCaul says US withdrawal from Afghanistan has emboldened Russia on Ukraine MORE has a Siberia-sized chip on his shoulder. He hasn’t gotten over the unraveling of the once-mighty Soviet Union, which he served as a KGB agent, and he doesn’t think the West pays sufficient attention to Russia’s security interests.

What’s a strongman to do? Threaten war, of course. Putin has amassed over 100,000 troops on Russia’s border with Ukraine, which Russia has already invaded once (in 2014) to forcibly annex Crimea.

As Ukrainian forces continue to battle pro-Russia separatists in the country’s Donbas region, a second invasion is a plausible threat. To defuse it, the Biden administration dispatched diplomats to meet their Russian counterparts in Geneva Monday. At Russia’s insistence, neither Ukraine nor European nations were invited to this parley, an omission that reflects Putin’s disdain for Europe and nostalgia for Cold War-style summitry. 

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Here’s the gun-to-the-head deal Russian diplomats put on the table: Russia won’t invade Ukraine if Washington agrees to halt NATO’s eastward expansion and dismantle military infrastructure in Eastern European countries that have joined the alliance. They presented draft security treaties obliging NATO to rescind its 2008 offer of membership to Ukraine and Georgia. 

U.S. diplomats flatly rejected Putin’s demands to revise the post-Cold War settlement by halting and rolling back NATO’s enlargement. In welcome contrast to the fawningly deferential Donald TrumpDonald TrumpSanders calls out Manchin, Sinema ahead of filibuster showdown Laura Ingraham 'not saying' if she'd support Trump in 2024 The Hill's 12:30 Report: Djokovic may not compete in French Open over vaccine requirement MORE, President BidenJoe BidenMacro grid will keep the lights on Pelosi suggests filibuster supporters 'dishonor' MLK's legacy on voting rights Sanders calls out Manchin, Sinema ahead of filibuster showdown MORE has stood up to Putin’s bullying, and has re-anchored U.S. foreign policy in America’s liberal and democratic values.

Amid much bluster about Russia’s need for security guarantees, Russian deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov incongruously denied that his country has any plan to invade Ukraine. U.S. Secretary of State Antony BlinkenAntony BlinkenUS calls on North Korea to halt 'unlawful and destabilizing' missile launches Wendy Sherman takes leading role as Biden's 'hard-nosed' Russia negotiator Pacific tsunami threat recedes, volcano ash hinders response MORE has warned that a Russian attack would trigger “massive” economic sanctions that could freeze Moscow out of the global financial system.

It’s fair to ask whether Washington should be negotiating with Russia just now, under the threat of war. That rewards Putin’s aggression and gives him what he craves — validation to his domestic audience that Russia is still a great power on a par with the United States. 

Only it isn’t. Russia of course remains a big and important country on Europe’s eastern flank. But its economic output (GDP) of just over $1.5 trillion annually is smaller than that of Italy and Canada. Russia spends about $61 billion a year on its military, just a tad more than the UK or Saudi Arabia, and far less than what the big European countries spend collectively. 

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Nonetheless, Putin evidently believes Russia’s stockpile of over 6,000 nuclear weapons keeps it in the Premier League of world powers and makes his bellicose posturing impossible to ignore. “And he’s noticed, correctly, that the language of threatening war is accepted on the global political market and can be used to engage in discussions as long as he can confirm his readiness for war,” notes Gleb Pavolvsky, a former key Putin adviser.

Putin has resurrected the traditional Russian bugaboo of “encirclement” in claiming that the United States and NATO pose a military threat to Russia. Yet he knows full well that NATO is by charter and tradition a purely defensive alliance, and that neither Europeans nor Americans would support an unprovoked military attack on Russia itself.

What Putin wants is a free hand to shape the political destinies of former Soviet states and satellites. The Biden administration rightly rejects this authoritarian “sphere of influence” doctrine, insisting that all sovereign nations, regardless of geography, have the right to self-determination. 

As a practical matter, a full-scale Russian invasion of Ukraine seems unlikely. Although Russia would likely win any set piece battle, it would take a lot more than the 175,000 troops Russia reportedly has plans to mobilize to subdue the 44 million people of one of Europe’s largest countries. 

Despite their deep historical ties, Ukrainian affection toward Russia not surprising has curdled since the 2014 invasion. As the Russia military buildup began last fall, a majority of Ukrainians (54 percent) for the first time voiced support for joining NATO.

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Rather than face a long, grinding Ukrainian insurgency, Putin probably would annex the contested eastern provinces and withdraw to the new border, leaving behind yet another frozen conflict.

At bottom, what Putin really fears isn’t a NATO attack, but movements in neighboring countries toward European norms of openness, democracy and the rule of law. There have already been popular uprisings in Ukraine, Georgia and Armenia, and more recently in Belarus. Just this week, Russia dispatched “peacekeeping” troops to Kazakhstan, to help its ruling autocrats suppress public protests sparked by soaring energy prices.

In all these countries (including his own), Putin sees popular agitation for change as a Western plot to destabilize and weaken Russia. Their reorientation from Moscow to the European Union – and from autocracy to democracy – jeopardizes Putin’s dream of reabsorbing Ukraine, Georgia, Belarus and perhaps other former Soviet republics into a reconstituted Russian empire that the world would once again respect — and fear.

That’s why President Biden is right to move liberty and democracy back to the center of U.S. diplomacy. To throwback dictators like Putin, they are still America’s most fearsome weapons.

Will Marshall is president and founder of the Progressive Policy Institute (PPI).